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A Message to the Diocese on the Action of the Vatican Court upon the Marlborough Marriage

By the Rt. Rev. William T. Manning, D.D., LL.D.

Bishop of New York

In the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Thanksgiving Day November 25, 1926


Public interest has been much stirred by the action of a Foreign Ecclesiastical Court which has undertaken to declare null and void a marriage which was solemnized in this city, in accordance with the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and under the laws of the United States.

Great numbers of people are asking why the Roman Catholic Church in England, and the Vatican Tribunal in Rome, should have felt moved to take such action in behalf of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, action which seems wholly at variance with the teaching of the Roman Church as to the sacredness of marriage, for both the Duke and Duchess have been divorced and remarried and, on this account, in 1922, the Bishop of Oxford acting for the Church of England, to which the Duke belongs, felt obliged to debar him from attendance at a Diocesan Conference.

This action of the Vatican Tribunal cannot be passed over and since the marriage thus declared null and void was solemnized at one of our Altars in this Diocese it seems to be incumbent upon me to express to our Clergy and people, and to any others who are interested, my judgment in the matter.

The facts as to the Marlborough marriage, and the subsequent events relating to it are well known. The marriage was solemnized in St. Thomas's Church, New York, in 1895, by Bishop Littlejohn, of Long Island, with Bishop Potter and the Rector of the Church, the Rev. Dr. John Wesley Brown, also participating in the ceremony. After having lived together in wedlock many years, and two children having been born of the union, the Duke and Duchess, in 1920, were divorced and both were thereupon remarried, the Duke to Miss Gladys Deacon, of Boston, the Duchess to M. Jacques Balsan, of Paris.

In the full light of these events, thirty-one years after the marriage of the Duke and Duchess took place, and after their divorce and remarriage to other persons, the Papal Court now announces that it has taken action upon their marriage solemnized in New York in 1895 and has declared this null and void.

[4] The explanation of this action, given through the press, is that the decree of nullity was granted because at the time of the marriage undue pressure was exercised by the parents of the bride and the bride did not act of her own free consent.

Before dealing with this explanation, however, there is a primary question which must be asked, as to which the despatches from Rome say nothing, and this question is What right has a Vatican Court sitting in Rome to pass upon the validity of a marriage between members of another Communion, solemnized in a Protestant Episcopal Church in New York, under the laws of the United States of America?

Marriage is a civil contract, as well as a religious one, and the claim of any foreign court, ecclesiastical or civil, to pass upon the validity of marriages solemnized in this land, between persons not of its own Communion, is an unwarrantable intrusion, and an impertinence. No Church in our own country could annul a marriage without due process of law in the Civil Courts.

The Diocesan Court of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Southwark, England, a tribunal unrecognized by English or American Civil Law, and the Tribunal of the Rota at the Vatican, described as the Supreme Court in such matters, presume to declare that an American marriage, valid, duly solemnized and recorded under our law, is void and that it never existed.

This assumption of jurisdiction by a Vatican Court has most serious implications and will be rightly resented by great numbers of our people.

Our religious liberty in this country must be uncompromisingly defended against any such interference.

This incident is a sharp reminder to those who love freedom of the importance of maintaining complete separation of Church and State.

But, apart from this primary question as to jurisdiction, the decision itself as announced is one which is contradicted by the known facts, and which cannot stand under any principle of law or reason.

The marriage is declared null and void from the beginning on the ground that pressure was used by the bride's parents and that she did not act of her own free will. The evidence upon which this decision was based has now been revealed by the Sacred Rota [4/5] Tribunal, but there is much evidence which runs counter to the decision. Many who were present at the marriage, and were associated closely with the Marlboroughs at the time, have informed me that they saw no sign whatever that the bride was acting under any compulsion but quite the contrary.

I have the direct testimony of one who heard his statements that, in view of the special circumstances attending the marriage, the Rector of the Church, the Rev. Dr. John Wesley Brown, took great care to assure himself that his young parishioner was acting of her own free consent, and that he was entirely satisfied as to this.

But the facts of this case are sufficient as they stand open in the record, and in the light of them the decision announced by the Vatican Court is a preposterous one.

If there had been forced consent in any sense which constituted duress, relief from this should have been sought, and the forced consent repudiated, at the first practicable moment.

Instead of such action, the plea, of forced consent seems never to have occurred to anyone until thirty-one years after the marriage.

There was no mention of forced consent when the Duchess, in 1920, applied to the English Civil Courts for a divorce from her husband, and by that suit for divorce acknowledged the validity, of her marriage twenty-five years before. It was not until long after she had been divorced and remarried that she presented this plea to the Courts of the Church of Rome.

The plea of duress made under such circumstances as these, after a quarter pf a century of married life, and the birth of two children, would not be entertained by any Civil Court and the decree of the Vatican Court based on this plea is one which earnest and devout Roman Catholics themselves should, and I am sure many do, greatly regret.

That any woman of middle age, after years of married life, should be willing to swear that her parents sold her for worldly gain, and against her will, is in itself a scandal, and the more so when one of the parents is no longer here to deny such an accusation.

This whole proceeding is a discredit to the Christian Church and an injury to religion. It has done more than any event in years to weaken the sanctity of marriage.

[6] If marriages are to be declared null and void on pleas so unreal as this, no marriage, and no home, can be regarded as safe.

At this time when so many influences are at work which threaten to destroy Christian marriage, the outlook is serious indeed if the Roman Catholic Church is to take such a position as this decree represents.

For Rome's opposition to Divorce we have been accustomed to give thanks. But of what effect is opposition to Divorce if those who wish to escape from their marital obligations can obtain decrees of nullity on such pretexts as this.

If couples who have lived years in wedlock can procure annulments merely by discovering that undue pressure in some form was used at the time of their marriage, divorce will become unnecessary. In the light of this annulment, and others that are now rumored, on trivial and puerile grounds, what becomes of the claim of the Roman Church that it stands for indissoluble marriage?

If this is to be its policy the Sacred Rota Tribunal will be likely to receive many applications for dissolution of the marriage bond.

By all who wish to see the sacredness of marriage upheld, and by all who recognize the great moral and spiritual opportunity of the Roman Catholic Church, this action by the Tribunal of the Vatican should be openly condemned, and most deeply deplored.

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